The movie begins with a phrenologist examining the Marquis de Sade's skull. Judge Jim Thomas wonders what a phrenologist would make of a Klingon skull.
When the skull strikes, you'll scream!
I, like so many young movie geeks, have fond memories of Amicus Productions. They churned out a number of minor horror classics, including Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood. One of their early films, based on Robert Bloch's short story, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade," was The Skull, at long last brought to DVD by Legend Films. Has Legend Films done right by the film, or have they tortured the poor thing—and more importantly, did they enjoy it?
Facts of the Case
The 19th century. A dark (but not stormy) night. A forbidding graveyard. A man digs up a grave, opens the coffin, and removes the occupant's head. Returning home, he brusquely orders his mistress from the bathroom. He places the skull in a small tub and uses acid to remove the flesh. He rinses the skull off and holds it up to the light. The man, a phrenologist, hopes that the bumps on the skull will offer some insight into the psyche that once resided within. Suddenly, in the bedroom, his mistress notices steam billowing from underneath the bathroom door. She rushes into the room, and screams us into the opening credits.
The 20th century. Occult scholar Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing, The Curse of Frankenstein) bids for a set of figurines depicting the four princes of Hell. His friend, Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee, The Curse of Frankenstein), wins the auction with a bid far in excess of the set's value. Afterwards, Phillips is at a loss to explain why he would pay such a sum. Later that evening, Marco (Patrick Wymark, Where Eagles Dare), a purveyor of objets d'occult, brings Maitland his latest offering—a biography of the Marquis de Sade, bound in human skin. Maitland buys the volume and is fascinated by the story it tells. The following evening, Marco brings an even bigger prize—the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Marco, eager to be rid of it, uncharacteristically lowers the price. But it's still a heady price tag (sorry), and Maitland asks for a few days to reflect. He discusses the matter with Phillips, when Sir Matthew drops a bombshell—the skull was stolen from him. Phillips had the skull for many months, and every month, during the two or three days of the new moon (when the powers of the supernatural are strongest), he always awoke to find the skull on a table in his study, having somehow spirited itself out of a locked display case. Phillips suspects that the skull harbors a diabolical spirit—the same spirit that possessed de Sade in life. The skull, claims Phillips, made him purchase the set of demonic princes because the spirit world, using the skull as a focus, needs the figurines for satanic ceremonies. Given the danger, Phillips decided to simply rejoice that the skull and its malign influence is gone rather than report the theft to the police. He advises Maitland to stay clear of the skull, lest it destroy him. Maitland remains intrigued by the skull, however. Phillips repeats his warning, reminding Maitland that the new moon is upon them. That night, Maitland falls asleep in his study and has a bizarre dream which culminates in the skull moving towards him as if claiming him as its own. Maitland awakens, finding himself outside Marco's apartment. Maitland returns home, gets enough money to pay for the skull, and returns to Marco's apartment, only to discover the man brutally killed and the skull just lying there. Maitland calls the police, but not before stashing the skull in a closet. He returns later, but gets into a deadly scuffle with Marco's meddlesome landlord. Frantic, Maitland returns home with his prize.
But the new moon is nigh, and with it the supernatural realm increases its power. And the skull increases its power over Maitland…
If you are looking for a traditional horror movie, you may be disappointed. The movie comes across as part horror, part character study. A much greater problem is that the pacing is positively glacial, cramming 60 minutes of plot into 82 minutes. There's a flashback to the opening sequence that provides critical information, but it's twice as long as it needs to be. Even M. Night Shyamalan would say, "For the love of God, get on with it!." Phillips thinks that the spirit ceremonies have been going on for some time, but without the statues of the demon princes. Were the evil spirits just practicing? Why are the statues needed? Will they allow some other kind of ceremony? That's perhaps the biggest plot hole, but there are others. Why are the skull's victims found with their jugulars cut clean through, but no blood is found? What's up with that surreal dream sequence? It's all more than a bit fuzzy, and at some point, you have little choice but to accept that the skull is a demonic bad-ass and just move on.
And then there's the ending. Oddly enough, despite the leisurely pace of the first part of the movie, the conclusion is quite rushed. The skull attempts to force Maitland to kill his wife as she sleeps, but Maitland manages to break free of the skull's influence, and instead thrusts his dagger through the skull's eye socket. Instead of doing something intelligent—like, say, taking a hammer to the skull—Maitland, who has already witnessed the skull unlocking its case and levitating to a table, just goes and locks himself in his room. The skull simply transports itself into the room and kills him. Finis.
The acting is a little uneven. Cushing brings his usual high level of professionalism, and totally sells the image a man slowly being driven insane. Wymark is suitably oily, while Lee seems to be phoning it in a bit. However, Lee has that voice, which lets him get away with a lot. The other actors are pretty forgettable.
I first saw the movie on TV, God knows how many years ago. It had a cramped feel to it, and the colors were seriously washed out. The disc's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer revitalizes the movie. While a fair amount of flecks and scratches remain from the source print, the color restoration is first rate, and black levels are balanced and clean. The sound is merely acceptable; overall volume levels are a little low, and dialogue in a few scenes is difficult to follow.
Extras? What extras? We get a trailer. To be fair, there's probably not a lot of extra-type material out there.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The real star of the movie, though, is Freddie Francis' direction. He had already won an Academy Award for cinematography for Sons and Lovers, and would later win a second for Glory. Evidence of his talent permeates the movie, particularly when Maitland is in his study. The room is full of masks and statues, and in almost every shot, one of them is in the frame, as though the spirit world is already watching Maitland, sizing him up. Francis also employs a lot of deep focus, accentuating the textures and the shadows-that's one way he calls attention to the masks and skulls. There's also a lovely shot of the skull, with Maitland reflected in the glass; Maitland's semi-transparent reflection suggests that the skull is overpowering his will.
Francis does rely too much on SkullCam, shooting through the skull so that the audience gets a skull's-eye view, though. Once or twice it's effective, but after a while it gets silly. Unfortunately, while Francis' cinematography skills are on display, as a director he can't enough movement into the script. That's mainly the script's fault as far too often we are told of the skull's power rather than see it firsthand. Such an approach can work, but it's critical that such scenes work to ratchet up the tension in some way. The scene in which Maitland and Phillips discuss the skull is a key example. They're playing pool as the subject comes up, and they continue to play as Phillips explains his tale, diminishing the import of his tale. If Phillips were truly serious, he would have disrupted the game to make sure he had Maitland's full attention.
Has anyone ever done a statistical analysis on the movies done on Mystery Science Theater 3000? I'd be very interested to know what percentage of the films are made in England. My suspicion is that it would be a ridiculously low number. Unlike the low-budget horror and science fiction movies from the United States, the British film industry in the '50s and '60s had a remarkable vein of professionalism. No matter how wretched the script, the cast and crew did everything they could to sell the movie. As a result, even half-baked scripts such as The Skull yield nearly palatable films. I can't really recommend The Skull, as the plot never quite coalesces; the movie relies too heavily on the audience's abilities to extrapolate with insufficient information. But if you're a fan of Amicus/Hammer horror, it's certainly worth a rental.
Legend Films is thanked for bringing this work to light; but as for Amicus Productions…like the judge in the surreal dream, the court finds the defendant guilty. Unlike that judge, this court doesn't think that an extended game of Russian Roulette is called for.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
• Theatrical Trailer
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